In 1936, the Cumbrian village of Mardale is selected as the site for the Haweswater reservoir. The people of Manchester are running short on water, and Mardale sits in a valley perfectly proportioned to hold the reservoir shored up by the dam the city’s waterworks proposes to build. Jack Liggett arrives in Mardale to sell this proposal, but his salesman’s talents are wasted on the locals, who want only to continue the pastoral life enjoyed by generations of Mardale sheep farmers. Janet Lightburn is one of the most passionate of these locals, more outspoken than most about the reservoir and how it will displace an entire village. Yet she has never met anyone like Jack – and he has never met anyone like her. As both struggle to see the other’s point of view, they reach that place beyond which understanding cannot go and inevitably, tragedy results.
This is Sarah Hall’s first novel, set in the land where she grew up. It is clear she knows her setting well, and the picture she presents of Mardale is as authentic as any you will find. She shows us the sadness behind the displacement of its people through understated details – for example, how many of them disinterred loved ones from the churchyard before water submerged it. Haweswater is not an easy read. Hall employs a unique style, and the story flits about instead of being precisely chronological and centering on one character. But not for nothing has she received critical acclaim. If you can take the time to become absorbed in this novel, you will be rewarded by a story that leaves you pondering long after you’ve read the final page.